The Garden of Evening Mists is the title of the booker shortlisted novel by Tan Twan Eng. Opening with an epigraph from Richard Holmes, “There is a goddess of memory, Mnemosyne; but none of Forgetting. Yet there should be as they are twin sisters…” the novel signals its thematic concerns from the very beginning.
The story itself begins in the 1980’s with the impending retirement of Supreme Court judge Yun Ling Teoh. Yun Ling has been recently diagnosed with aphasia and is in a race against time to construct her memories into a narrative which will help her better understand her life. The aphasia adds a sense of urgency to the project of remembering and serves as a metaphor for the equal role forgetting plays when we seek to produce a cohesive narrative of our past.
In order to better pursue her project of remembering, Yun Ling returns to the Cameron highlands, where previously she had spent two years learning the art of ornamental landscaping from a former head gardener of the Japanese Emperor, Aritomo. Their relationship is a complex one given that Yun Ling was a former “guest of the emperor” in a hidden internment camp during World War Two. Here amongst the many deprivations she suffered, the memory of her sister’s death stands out. Her sister Yun Hong, the prettier of the two girls, a fact which perhaps sealed her unfortunate fate, was selected to be a ‘comfort wife’ for the Japanese soldiers in the camp.
This euphemistic term covers what amounted to repeated systematic rape by multiple men. Attempting to escape the horrors of the camp, both sisters took to imagining gardens like the gardens of Kyoto, which they had witnessed in their youth when visiting Japan with their father, and constructing their own. Yun Hong in particular was fascinated by the subject of gardening and it is in honour of her memory that Yun Ling seeks to construct a Japanese style garden.
While staying with family friends including South African tea magnate and Boer War veteran, Magnus Pretorius, his nephew Frederick Pretorius, and his wife, Yun Ling hears about the existence of the Emperors former Gardener Aritomo who now lives in their locality. Seeing the opportunity to commission a garden fitting to her sisters’ memory, Yun Lin approaches Aritomo only to be told he no longer constructs gardens for others. He offers instead to teach her the art of Japanese gardening amongst other Zen like pursuits, such as archery.
The story takes place over three main time periods, World War two, the 1950’s and its ‘present day’, the 1980’s. As Yun Ling’s memories unfold, so to do the stories of those around her who share her world. The world which the novel explores is that of colonisation on the cusp of collapse and the emergence of a new world. The characters depicted occupying the twilight of the colonial world are products of history and the encounters it produces, the personal results of the abstract historical experience. This world, as it is depicted, is cosmopolitan and varied reflecting the complexity of the colonial experience. Marriages between mixed races and nationalities exist in this liminal space, a situation which would be unheard of under normal circumstances.
The novel features a wealth of information and research. Topics covered range from the history of Asian decolonisation and the Boer wars, to more esoteric topics such as gardening, archery, woodblock printing and the art of tattooing. Each topic covered furthered my knowledge of this area to a greater degree, engendering in me an interest in ornamental gardening I previously had not possessed, which I found to be an enriching experience.
While the novel’s structure is heavily conventional, using as it does the common device of an aged narrator recounting their life, the way it weaves its historical threads together is expertly done giving an illusion of effortlessness in accord with the precepts of Zen philosophy which reside at the core of this book. The pacing of the story, which is slow and gentle, may not be to the tastes of an impatient reader but I feel it is appropriate to the story which is being told.
Complex strands of history and plot are presented and flow effortlessly without betraying the amount of work that must have gone into researching and plotting the novel. While reading I was reminded of T.S Eliot’s adage, “Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort or by both”.The novels culmination makes patience worthwhile providing a satisfying ending which recasts the relationship between Yun Ling and Aritomo. I found the Garden of Evening Mists to be a satisfying read and would recommend it without hesitation to patient readers who will find their disposition rewarded.